Today's second edition of our podcast is with Dan Nigrin, a guy who I've known about for quite some time. He hung around the analogheaven maillist back in the days when I was really active in it, and I remember when his first software program came out. We all did whatever was the equivalent at the time of "Oh no you didn't...!" because he seemed to find a way to hack into the tape save mechanism of the old MC-202 system. It was really pretty amazing.
So I wanted to talk to, to him because, subsequent to that, in addition to continuing to work on MC-202 Hack, he also has been doing a lot of work with idiosyncratic sequencers and, well, I just find the work really pretty amazing. So let's take this opportunity to talk to Dan.
Darwin: So, I'd like to introduce you to Dan Nygren, my guest on this podcast. Dan is a person who has been on my radar for a long time. It goes back to the old days of the analogheaven mailing lists where, he first cropped up with a couple of interesting things. My first encounter with him was that I wrote an email message about getting a system and explaining to a person at a music store that my music sounded like, well, cables having sex - and that seemed to pique Dan's interest. He, reached out to me saying, "Hey, I'd like to hear some of that stuff!" And I noticed on the bottom of the mail it described him as a person running Defective Records - which I thought was a great name for a record label. Dan, could you tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Defective, and the kind of music that you, that you were pulling together at the time?
Dan: Sure. Well, the label started basically as the desire to make a home for my band at the time. Me and a good friend by the name of Bump Stadelman had formed a band. We both lived in Baltimore at the time and the band was called Glitch. We had released a lot of music on some really pretty high profile, independent electronic music labels around the world.
We were lucky enough to have a release on R&S Records from Belgium, from Fax Records in Germany, Industrial Strength Records out of Brooklyn, and worked with some fantastic people. But we started to look at each other and say "Why are we licensing our music and distributing our music on these other small labels when we could probably do the same thing ourselves - and not have to convince anyone to pick up a particular release - and just take over things on our own and have complete control over the finished product?" So that was the genesis of the label and you'll see the similarities in the names Glitch was called Glitch because, when things would invariably go wrong with what we were trying to do in a song, it sounded better than what we had intended to do in the first place.
So we went with that idea, and to keep the label name in sync with the band name, Defective was born. So initially we started just to put out our own things. We soon branched out to other small acts that, were just starting out in the electronic music world, in the local area, in Baltimore specifically.
And there was a lot of talent there (we were surprised to see). So our first several releases were all those local folks, but then as the label grew, and our reputation grew, people started sending demos from all over the world. Plus, you know, I was always on the lookout for people making music that sounded like "wires having sex", I suppose. So, you know, I solicited music from all over the place.
Actually I think it was on the analogheaven lists and I found a Roman Belavkin, who was the guy behind Solar X. And they went on to do some really great stuff and got released by lots of other bigger labels after ours. But basically before long we had gotten acts signed from all over the world. You know, before we knew it, we had gotten upwards of about 30 releases out there, which I thought was pretty good for a bunch of guys who didn't know the first thing about any of this stuff when we started out.
Darwin: Right. That's pretty interesting. I'm curious, one of the things that I know from other people that run a small labels and particularly labels that are doing avant garde - or kind of crazy releases - is that they just literally get snowed under with demos from people. Was that your experience or not?
Dan: Yeah, absolutely. Invariably, when we were sort of at our peak would get cassette after cassette, or after a while CDs (cassettes weren't used anymore), in the mail on a daily basis from all over the place. And, you know, sometimes I would wonder about the content, because when you would listen to these demos - and I actually did listen to all of them.
Having been on the other side of that equation where I was the one sending the demos, I always would appreciate when I heard back from the label, either good or bad, but at least knowing they had listened to it.
So I tried to do the same when they came our way. But sometimes the demos were completely off base with everything we had put out on the label up until that time. So we just started to realize that people were just literally going on the Internet and finding, you know, record label names and, if they happen to find an address where they could mail the demo, they would just automatically send one. Forgetting, for a minute, about whether or not the label actually fit their type of music or not. But oftentimes we did get good demos and in fact we did release stuff out of things that we received just as a cold, demo mailing.
Darwin: That sort of shotgun approach. I think even before the Internet, there were those Songwriters Markets books that you could buy that would just be 400 pages of labels and the addresses. And you just knew that was the source for these shotgun marketing approaches. You talk about the heyday, or the high point that the label had, it has sort of trailed off. Are you still doing releases?
Dan: No. Speaking frankly, we haven't put out a new release in a long, long time. The two most recent releases were handled generally by Bump, who still lives down in Baltimore. I'm up in the Boston area now.
They were things that were local to the area. Again, we're kind of returning to our roots. Part of the challenge for us is when I moved from the Baltimore area, things got a little bit more complicated. It also was a time where vinyl was starting to have a little bit of a decline and we were always, kind of, a vinyl-geared, DJ-centric kind of label.
Of course now vinyl has swung back and it's going strong. But at the time there was definitely a little bit of an impact there. Everything was going to digital format. We've since, of course, converted all of our stuff and now you can get all the back catalog on iTunes, and we're trying to keep up. The other challenge was that we we're both getting older and we each have our day jobs as well as managing the label, and it was getting to be more and more challenging the bigger we got. So, it did tend to peter out I'd say around '97 or '98 or so.
Darwin: I see. I'm going to want to come back later to the day job thing, because I know that that's something that you have to manage - and I think it's going to be interesting for a lot of our listeners. But sticking with the Defective thing, one of the things that that seemed to happen... again, in my recollection was that in addition to doing a record label, you started doing software. And what kind of hit my headlights in the early days was a program called MC-202 Hack, which blew me away.
That was really before doing much on computers made a lot of sense. I mean, we were all struggling with Cakewalk or early versions of Digital Performer (or just Performer at the time). And I hear about somebody who had hacked the communication protocols of the old Roland MC-202 to make it a little more assessable. How did you start that process? What caused you to want to do that? It seemed like it was a little crazy at the time. It remains crazy idea, I think, but it's also a really compelling use of technology.
Dan: Yeah. So, this goes back to my days in Baltimore and, back to the days where you could go to a pawn shop and actually find some interesting music creation devices at a good price. Of course with the Internet that no longer happens. But I vividly remember walking into this pawn shop in Baltimore looking for stuff to use in Glitch. And I found the Roland MC-202. And I said, "Wow, that's pretty cool."
And I paid, I think it was, 80 bucks for it. And I brought her home and we started using it in the band. But what was a real pain was that the thing didn't have MIDI on it. It had control voltage interfaces, which were fine and I had a MIDI-to-CV converter and so on and, and we used it that way, but I kept staring at the back of the unit and seeing these cassette input and output jacks.
And of course this is the way you used to save and load your sequences, from cassette tape. You had them in the 202, and I thought, "God, wouldn't it be cool if I could figure out a way to kind of decode that audio squelch?" (If you've ever listened to what comes out of those jacks, it'll blow your speakers. Basically. It's squelsh, there's no other word to describe it. I could decode that squelch and figure out how those patterns were being stored to tape so that I could write a program, write a piece of software that might be able to convert a MIDI file (which I had coming out of my Cubase application at the time) to program the 202 directly. I started tinkering around and the first thing I did was record a sequence into the 202 and then sendt to the cassette output.
I put that output into my computer and visualized it using some audio editor program - I can't remember which one now. And, you know, I just started to explore. I absolutely had no idea what I was doing. But after a while I was able to figure out, just through trial and error and lots and lots of tape dumps from the 202, how this thing was put together. At a high level, it was pretty straightforward.
There were two different audio frequencies in the squelch. And after a while I realized that the low frequency conveyed the off bits in the bitstream and the high frequency conveyed a high, a positive bit or a '1' bit. You know, it was tedious. I don't know how many sequence files I looked at. I probably ruined my vision after awhile.
It was literally hundreds. But basically I reverse engineered the tape save format. The programming language I was using at the time was Java. This was at the time that I had moved up to Boston. And for mywork I was learning Java, and Java was relatively new at the time. It was in its 1.0 incarnation, but I was really thrilled at the prospects of being able to write some software that would be usable by folks who were on Macs, but also by folks who were on PCs. And that was, of course, what Java was promising back then. So I said, "I know I'm going to write this in Java."
And so I got to work. Once I had figured out the tape save format, I started writing software that essentially let you take a MIDI file, it converted it to audio squelch and then you just played that audio squelch into your 202. And your MIDI file was now magically encoded into your 202 sequencer.
Darwin: That's an amazing story. And what's even more amazing to me is after going through that process and the insanity that that sounds like... I mean that, that has that ring of the sort of like obsessive compulsive, "I have to make it work kind of thing" that we saw often see in the Max world. But what I find even more interesting is that after defeating the MC-202, rather than putting the trophy on the shelf and hanging it up, it appears that you attack the [Roland] MC-4 as well. Was that a similar process?
Dan: Yeah, similar and slightly different. So, let me just fast forward a little bit on the 202 first. So it was 1997 that I first released the Java version of the program. I returned to it in 2008 because there was stuff that I wanted to do that I never got around to do. And one of those was going the other direction, not from MIDI file to 202 squelch, but rather from 202 squelch back to MIDI file. Because a lot of people were telling me that they actually liked all the little happy accidents that occur when they were programming the 202 directly using its keypad, and they want it to be able to take advantage of those happy accidents and convert them back to MIDI so that they could use them in their other gear.
That also was the time where I started to .. where I had had already a lot of experience using Max to build software. And so I decided to convert the program from something that ran in Java to being a Max-based application. I did that in 2008. So with that behind me, I then started to tackle the Roland MC-4, and this was primarily driven by people sending me emails saying, "Hey, this was really cool what you did for the 202, but how about the MC-4? It's probably similar with respect to its tapes, its format, because A) it's from the same company, and B) it was probably from similar period of time in history. The MC-4 predated the MC-202, of course.
The one problem was that there were no more flea markets that had MC-4's around. And when I would look on Ebay or Craigslist or whatnot to see what I could spend with regard to buying an MC-4, it was just through the roof; it was like a thousand bucks and I really didn't even have a use for the MC-4 within my own studio. So I was faced with the challenge of figuring this out. Essentially, using kind of a crowdsourced approach where I got a bunch of people... well, not a bunch. I literally got three or four people who had MC-4's already and who are interested and dedicated enough to send me lots of tape dumps of specific sequences that I would tell them what the contents should be.
And through an iterative process where they sent me the audio files, scrutinize them, I ran into another obstacle, I'd say, "Well, now I need something with three notes in it and these are the three notes that should be in it." "Now I need quarter notes followed by a 16th note followed by a rest" - you know, specific instructions like that, that would help me decode the the format for the tape.
Darwin: So you actually did the MC-4 Hack without having an MC-4?
Dan: To this day, I've never touched or laid eyes on an MC-4 in the flesh!
Darwin: That is, in fact, insane - but a wonderful story. And one of those things where you see that something like that could have never happened without the Internet and without the kind of communities that build up around certain kinds of hardware or software solutions.
Dan: Actually I'll give you the up-to-date story. The MC-4, I did in 2011. I'm now actually working again based on lots of requests from people trying to do the same thing for the Oberheim DSX.
This is an eight-channel CV sequencer meant to go hand-in-hand with one of the many Oberheim keyboards, and which you could only program using an Oberheim keyboard. So here's a piece of hardware, the DSX, that people would kill for nowadays: standalone, eight-track, CV gate, sequencer. To power all of the old analog stuff that they want to still use or a Eurorack modular or whatever. And yet there's no way to program the thing except by manually playing your OB keyboard. So if I figure out that cassette input format for the DSX, again, I'll be able to circumvent that limitation and really open up this up.
Darwin: That's actually pretty exciting because, first of all, all Oberheim keyboards are roughly the size of an aircraft carrier. And, and secondly, an eight-channel CV sequencer is a pretty great idea given the kind of current direction of the analog rebirth of modulars and new systems. That's really smart. Really cool.
Dan: Absolutely. So for all those listening, go by a DSX now!
Darwin: Yeah, not for long, nothing remains affordable. So, looking at where you went, it seems like you are a big fan of step sequencers. Where I interact with that is the Klee sequencer, which I find I've always been fascinated by - sort of the logical development of that thing. You know how they put it together and what the concept was behind it. But the hardware was either... either you had to be very good friends with a soldering iron or know somebody who was, and also be willing to spend a fair amount of money to put one together. You came along and I think you worked in collaboration with the people that created the hardware version to come up with a software version. Is that right?
Dan: Yeah, that's right. So, and I'm blanking a little bit on the year, but, basically I had the same experience as you, Darwin. I was really fascinated when I first learned about the hardware Klee. And I said, "Wow, you know, I gotta have this." And I started to research sourcing all of the components to build the kit and what enclosure would I put it in and so on. And I knew that was gonna be a long slog and I was just starting to get into building some DIY kits, myself. So I was getting a little bit more comfortable with the soldering iron, but I still knew it was going to be a long process. And furthermore, although I do have a bunch of CV-controlled analog synths, I also have a lot of other stuff that I'd like to use MIDI for.
So I started to say, "God, wouldn't it be cool if I had a MIDI capable Klee sequencer?" And so I started looking online and it looked as though actually some crazy folks had envisioned doing that in hardware, but that no one had really thought about the software angle, yet. So I took that as a new challenge and - both with regard to recreating the Klee functionality in software, but also to see if I could do it in Max. Because at this point I had forgotten, frankly, all of my Java coding skills and forget about any other sort of lower-level computer language. I really was only programming in Max, by that point. And so I started, and this was another example where I actually had never seen nor used nor touched a Klee sequencer up until that time.
And the only thing that I used was the documentation that was available for the hardware Klee. I did reach out to Scott Stites, the guy behind the design of the Klee. He actually worked in collaboration with several people, and it's a pretty close-knit community on the electromusic forums. So I reached out to him and some of those other folks and, first of all, got their blessing and endorsement. And secondly, I had their help. So when I couldn't quite figure out how something was meant to work from the documentation, they clarified it for me. Um, of course, all of the Beta testing and and ideas around new features that weren't in the hardware version - I also worked on together with them.
Darwin: Well, I think it's a really good example. You talking before about the MC-202, and how people really enjoy the happy accident they run across. It seems like Klee is one of those on those devices that really brings the capability for happy accident right up to the forefront. Now I also noticed that you've continued the efforts in... it's interesting that these seem to be in collaboration with people doing hardware. You've done an emulation of the Roland 100m step sequencer. You did that in collaboration with Ryk. And then you have the CycliC sequencer, which I - I'm trying to remember what that system is...
Dan: No, so the Cyclics sequence, that was a new development.
Dan: It was the idea of [Emilie] Gillet.
That's the person behind Mutable Instruments, who founded this new company just a few years ago, initially with a DIY, synth kits. First the Shruti than the Sruthi, then the, a new Sri and then the Ambica. And a few other things as well. But started out with these kits. And as I mentioned, I had been starting to get into building these synthesizer kits myself, so that's how we crossed paths. And then one day he contacted me, he said, "You know, I like you. I know you're into these sort of esoteric step sequencers. I have a new idea for a step sequence - I was wondering if you wanted to give a shot at instantiating it in software just so we could see how it behaved and whether it was worth proceeding with." Now I'll bet he gets pestered by folks asking him to try to do the hardware!
Darwin: Right. Of course. Well, it's funny because the circular thing, I immediately, was thinking of like the Genoqs Octopus.
Dan: Well, have accused me of ripping them off...
Dan: But, if you look closely, at the, at the Genoqs and look through the documentation or if you have one or whatever, you'll understand how it works. And then when you sort of dig into CycliC you'll see it's completely different. They have absolutely nothing to do with one another apart from the fact that they lay out steps in a circular fashion.
Darwin: Yeah, well that's a thing. That's one of the problems with software in general is that the way it is presented to on the Internet through postage stamp-sized overviews. And so it's really easy to make to make generalized or mistaken identity problems with those. So one of the things that I find interesting is that you are actually following through instead of making your own personal instruments or whatever, you're actually making software for others to use. Snd specifically, software for commercial release, which is probably not the typical story for Max users. Um, what do you find are challenges in doing that? Do you feel like it's been a successful endeavor for you?
Dan: So let me say up front that the reason that I do these commercially is not for the money, quite frankly. Have I made money? Yeah, I've made a little bit of money, but it's not as though I could live off the income. And frankly, the primary reason that I do it commercially (as opposed to free, just putting it out there) is because it pushes me to do a better job. I think if I release these as open source and, you know, made them freely available, I know that I wouldn't push myself to make them as robust and thought out as I would otherwise.
So I take it as a personal challenge, really. And I do derive a lot of satisfaction at seeing that people find them good enough through the demos or whatnot to actually plop down a few dollars. That gives me a lot of satisfaction. And furthermore, I like interacting a lot with the people who do end up purchasing them. They give me great ideas. So you'll notice that a lot of my creations don't end at version 1.0. There's generally lots of iteration that happens after those initial releases and most often those ideas come from my users. So that's the background or the rationale behind why I do them commercially.
Dan: Regarding the challenges... Sure, you've now got people who are paying you real money for a product and they expect it to work. So invariably when there's problems or other support issues, you have to deal with all of them. And, you know, that's the downside. Wouldn't it be great if I could get paid and then not have to support my users? But, clearly that's not the case.
Darwin: One thing before we go that I do want to bring up because I think it actually represents the reality of things for a lot of people is that you have what I would guess is a pretty aggressive real world job. Can you tell us what your title is?
Dan: Sure. I'm the chief information officer at Boston Children's hospital. I'm also a practicing pediatric endocrinologist here.
Darwin: Alright. So that makes my head spin to think of someone with that job coming home and looking at MC-202 tape formats. How do you balance what is clearly an aggressive work life with this passionate work in Max with analog systems, work with music and work in other artwork? How do you balance that?
Dan: Well, frankly I actually find it beneficial to have both of them because when I'm tired of the day job, it's actually fun for me to go home and think about working on some challenging Max issue that I need to wrestle with. I actually look forward to that time and find it complimentary to the stuff that I have to think about when I'm at work.
So I actually do find them complimentary.
Darwin: Well, that's great. Dan, thank you so much for spending the time with me. Good luck with stuff. For anyone out there who wants to take a look at Dan's work, it's www.defectiverecords.com where you'll find both the software and the music releases. Any last parting words?
Dan: No, thanks very much Darwin for the opportunity. This was fun.
Darwin: Yeah, it was fun. And I really appreciate you being willing to talk to us. Have a great day - bye!